Chinese New Year: Celebrate the Year of the Snake

February 6, 2013

Thought you were done celebrating New Year’s? Think again; on February 10th, it’s Chinese New Year (a.k.a. Lunar New Year), the most important and longest holiday in traditional Chinese culture. The new year celebration lasts fifteen days, beginning with a new moon and culminating on the Lantern Festival, on a full moon. Generally in the U.S., many families I know (including my own) observe the holiday for three days, celebrating especially Chinese New Year’s eve and the first day of the New Year. As some of you may know, 2013 marks the Year of the Snake, which you might have seen on postage stamps or even Starbucks gift cards. If you’re curious to learn more about this special holiday, read on!

Customs and beliefs:

  • Zodiac signs – According to the Chinese calendar, there are 12 zodiac signs (a similar notion to horoscopes), and there is a cycle of 12 months represented by each animal. 2013 is the Year of the Snake, and predictions of how the year will turn out consist of it being neither lucky nor unlucky, and unpredictable (fortune tellers warn us to prepare for the unexpected!).
  • Spring cleaning – Prior to the New Year, the house needs to be thoroughly cleaned. This symbolizes sweeping away any negativity from the past year, and it also signifies a fresh start and new beginning.
  • Family – Family is at the heart of Chinese culture, which is why New Year’s eve dinner is the most important celebration of the holiday. It’s called the reunion dinner, where the family gathers together to signify unity. Visiting family is also a major tradition on New Year’s. Many visit relatives and friends, exchanging red envelopes and happy wishes.
  • Red envelopesRed envelopes are given by elders to the youth, as a way of sharing good fortune. They’re filled with cash and are one of my favorite parts of the holiday.
  • Prayer – Over the holiday, many people visit temples to pray and hear gongs and drums that welcome the new year and chase out the old. At home, families light up incense, pray at their shrines, and burn paper money and offer food for their ancestors.
  • Parades – Parade celebrations usually feature firecrackers that are lit to announce the ending of the old year and to usher in the new.  The noise and flashes of light are meant to drive away any lingering evil spirits. There are also lion dance performances that serve to bring the community together and bring good fortune as well. Like firecrackers, they’re also done to scare away devils.
  • Superstitions – There are several taboos on New Year’s, most of which involve “cutting things short” or losing bad luck. The ones that are big in my household are: 1) Avoid negative connotations like “death” or anything that sounds like it to keep away bad fortune; 2) Don’t sweep the floors or dump out trash on New Year’s because you might end up sweeping away or tossing out good luck; 3) Similarly, don’t cut your hair on New Year’s day because it may mean cutting your luck short; and 4) Paying back all your debts before the holiday signifies starting the new year with a clean slate.
  • Decorations - Usually you see a lot of red during this holiday because red is an auspicious color, bringing to mind vitality and life. At home, my family puts up red papers and banners with favorable words on them like “spring,” “good fortune,” “happiness,” “prosperity,” and “longevity.” To read more about the significance of New Year’s decorations, check out this article from KPCC.org.

Foods for good luck:

  • Tangerines and oranges – Displaying and eating these fruits is said to bring wealth and luck. They’re popular because the Chinese words for “gold” and orange sound alike, and “tangerine and “luck sound similar. Having the leaves on them is good because leaves symbolize longevity.
  • Fish - The word “fish” in Chinese is a homophone for the word “plenty.” This symbolizes prosperity and surplus, so serving a whole fish is customary on New Year’s.
  • Nian Gao – This dessert is made from sticky rice flour and brown sugar. It literally means “year cake,” but “gao” sounds the same as the word for “tall” or “high” in Chinese, so the cake symbolizes achieving new heights in the coming year. Here’s a recipe from Chowhound.
  • Buddha’s Delight – Also known as Jai, this is a vegetarian dish that usually consists of sea moss for prosperity, lotus seeds for children, noodles for longevity, lily buds for harmony, Chinese black mushrooms for the fulfillment of wishes, and more. Try out this recipe.
  • Sweets - Serving desserts is supposed to help make life sweeter in the new year. Many families give and receive Chinese candy boxes, sometimes called the “Tray of Togetherness,” that contain dried candied pineapple, coconut, kumquat, ginger, water chestnut, and more.
  • Nuts and seeds – These symbolize the hope for many children. A favorite in my household is dyed watermelon seeds.

So there you have it, a brief introduction to the Lunar New Year. “Gong xi fa cai!” “Gong hay fat choy!” “Chuc mung nam moi!” May you have a happy and prosperous new year!

For a comprehensive guide to celebrating the Lunar New Year, take a look here. You can also read more about New Year foods at chow.com.

6 Responses to “Chinese New Year: Celebrate the Year of the Snake”

  1. Lasantha Wickramasinghe Says:

    Those born in the Year of the Snake are believed to be thoughtful, artistic and stylish yet complex characters, according to Chinese mythology.

  2. Dave Lucas Says:

    Silly me! I was wondering why the Asian Market was so packed when I stopped by there to buy a fish the other day! So, ironically, I was tuned in to the wavelength of “plenty” and didn’t even realize it! (oh and yes, Year of the Snake – let’s see, so far: Pope resigns and NK sets off a nuke. And it’s not just about mid-February!)

  3. Megan88 Says:

    Chinese New Years is one of my favorite celebrations…and I’m not even Chinese! But I love the colors, atmosphere, and the zodiac. The year of the snake is especially significant since I’m a snake in the Chinese Zodiac. Great blog post, and great overview. Kudos!


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